From the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota is Jake P. Dwyer: A Detroit-based artist whose work came to East Lansing in the form of a mural on Evergreen Avenue at The Graduate hotel.
The Graduate Hotels are based in Chicago, so when Dwyer came to East Lansing he quickly realized the CEO and creative director would never be on-site. Consequently, Dwyer had to put his creativity to the test.
“Somebody usually has some rough ideas when they ask for a mural,” Dwyer said. “They were just like, 'We like your previous work. Can you design something that has relevance to the school and the city?'”
With artwork in any city, Dwyer sees what people want to be represented about their homes, conducts his own research and draws out two to three drafts before executing the final product.
“It's pretty cut and dry,” Dwyer said.
An aerosol color on rugged brick painting, the mural with green and white backgrounds depicts four panels of memorabilia unique to Michigan State. On the far left, various aquatic animals — such as ducks and turtles — typically found in the Red Cedar River are depicted.
The next panel shows the historic Black athletes of MSU. Former MSU football defensive end Charles “Bubba” Smith is recreated on the left side of the mural. Smith was also an actor and one of six players in MSU football history to have his jersey number retired.
Like it does in East Lansing, basketball is center stage as the center of the panel is former MSU forward Aerial Powers, an alumnus from Michigan State who was drafted by the WNBA upon a stellar career with the Spartans. On the right is NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
The next panel depicts Black pioneer and physician Barbara Ross-Lee, the older sister of Motown singer Diana Ross. Ross-Lee is an alumnus of Michigan State's College of Osteopathic Medicine and went on to become the first African American female Dean of a United States medical school.
To Ross-Lee's right side is former MSU President Clifton Wharton Jr., who upon being elected, became the first Black president of a major university. He has since made further strides in U.S. politics, formerly serving as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton.
The panel at the rightmost edge depicts members of the MSU marching band.
From doodling at the kitchen counter to earning a Bachelors of Fine Arts from Minneapolis College, Dwyer has been dancing around the idea of public art since he was a kid.
“I just drew and painted a lot as a kid and my parents supported it,” Dwyer said. “In fact, I used to draw a lot of athletes because I was a big athlete growing up.”
Like anything else, art takes a lot of practice and commitment. Some professional artists recommend practicing five hours a day; Dwyer got a lot of his hours in as a child drawing athletes similar to those seen on his mural on The Graduate.
However, art hasn’t always come easy for him. At an early age, Dwyer got a taste of what it's like to have your work rejected.
“It made me think a lot about when I was a little kid,” Dwyer said. “I used to always submit drawings to Sports Illustrated Kids, but I never got anything into that magazine. I always thought I was sending them really dope drawings.”
In a market driven by the perspective of others, the creative field is no easy sailing as Dwyer acknowledged.
“It's tough,” Dwyer said. “Some people think, 'Oh, you're good at art, you'll make a great living,' but it's not necessarily true. It's a long time to make a living off it. I mean, there was almost a 10-year gap between me graduating from college and actually making a solid living.”
Critics liking the work is just half the battle. For others to see artists’ work, they have to be comfortable enough with what they produced to show it for everyone to see.
“It takes a long time to become comfortable with your own work,” Dwyer said. “I have painted one or two murals in my life that I just didn't even sign; I didn't even want to pretend that it existed.”
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After college, in an attempt to stay engaged in the arts, Dwyer worked as a studio assistant and even ran a gallery with a friend. Eventually, the artist took a bartending job, separating himself from the arts.
“If it wasn't exactly what I wanted to do, then I didn't want it to burn me out,” Dwyer said. “So, I got into bartending and working at really nice restaurants for five or six years.”
Enjoying the money he was bringing in at the time, Dwyer felt the odd temptation to stick around his current industry as he was offered a general manager position and knew he could begin to make six figures. Yet, something turned him away.
“The young me, the 12-year-old version of me, would be like, 'No, that ain't it,’” Dwyer said.
Five years ago at age 29, Dwyer packed his things and moved to the abstract, integral city of Detroit, seeking an opportunity to pursue public art in light of the new mural program within the city government. The city’s effort to fill public spaces through art on city walls greatly intrigued Dwyer.
Since then, Dwyer has found success through social media and personal connections. Now, Dwyer spends his days making paintings, riding his bike, drinking beer and going camping.
“It's like the number one thing that the human brain is designed to do, right?” Dwyer said. “Whether you're talking about it from evolution or, if you're religious, that's what God made humans to do — is be creative. So, it's definitely a rewarding way to exist.”
Dwyer's artwork can be found on his Instagram, on his website and anywhere around Detroit, Minneapolis and at The Graduate Hotel in East Lansing.
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